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Interview: Jesse Armstrong

We spoke to the man behind The Thick Of It, Peep Show and Fresh Meat about his brilliant first novel Love, Sex And Other Foreign Policy Goals

His writing has satirised British politics for the past decade and the characters he’s created have helped shape the way we perceive modern politicians. Jesse Armstrong has an impeccable track record of unpicking the world of politics through comedy, most famously in The Thick Of It.

As his first novel Love, Sex and Other Foreign Policy Goals is released, I spoke to Armstrong about his decision to go solo and move away from working with his long-standing writing partner Sam Bain for the solitary life of literature.

Armstrong and Bain met whilst studying at university in Manchester in the 90s, and this is where the novel begins, with a group of graduates, activists and hangers on hatching a plan to bring peace to war-torn Yugoslavia through the medium of student theatre.

“From the weather to the landscape, I had to think about all of that. It was scary”

It’s Armstrong’s first attempt at going solo, working without the input of directors, writers, actors and a production team. I asked if the change in process from TV to books was intimidating. He explained that although when he’s writing for the screen he has to flesh out all the finer details, the possibilities when writing novels are endless as they’re not confined to the same restraints. “From the weather to the landscape, I had to think about all of that. It was scary in parts.”

Armstrong’s success has been, in part, thanks to the great people he has chosen to work with. In 2007 he, alongside Sam Bain and Chris Morris, wrote the script for Morris’s directorial debut Four Lions; a satire, which turned a mocking gaze towards the world of British jihadi terrorists in the aftermath of the London bombings.

But Armstrong’s contribution to comedy goes much further than political lampooning. His and Bain’s Peep Show has not only turned the anguish of two mismatched university friends into the longest-running comedy in Channel 4 history but also transformed David Mitchell and Robert Webb into national treasures.

Part of the success of his writing is in the strength of his ideas. Armstrong first had the idea for Love, Sex and Other Foreign Policy Goals five or six years ago but waited until the right time to begin working on it. “It starts out muddled-up like scrambled eggs,” he explains.

But after finding time to research and write it (he travelled to Bosnia as part of the research) in between projects, Armstrong can now plan his next move. I asked if he enjoyed the process of writing a novel and if he has any plans for another one. He explained that his projects always start with a good idea but can take a while to come to fruition. “Do you have any ideas? Perhaps you could tell me my next one!”

A common denominator in all of his work is how personal incentives can derail the best of intentions. In the book, Andrew, the narrator, decides to join the troupe after falling for a Penny, a politically-charged girl who goes against the wishes of her parents to join the group in a van across Europe. Andrew manages to win himself a place in the crusade by claiming to be able to speak Serbo-Croat, an assertion that finds him listening to language tapes on his Walkmen en route, in a vain attempt to cover up his ill-thought through fabrication.

The naivety of the group’s ideals make for great comedy. I ask Armstrong if his knack for identifying people’s less applaudable notions make him wary of good intentions, but he explains it’s that very complexity that interests him. “I’m not suspicious. I think people are never made up of just one impulse.”

“I don’t want to talk about youth like an old man talking about skateboarders"

Love, Sex and Other Foreign Policy Goals is set during the early 1990s, before the common use of mobile phones and the internet. If a group were to undertake a similar venture nowadays, they would have access to up to date coverage of the situation with the ability to research their plan online, rather than constantly second guessing their next move. I wonder what a modern day version would look like. “I guess they’d be going out to fight ISIS or something.”

So what does Armstrong think of young people’s take on politics? “I don’t want to talk about youth like an old man talking about a group of skateboarders. I can’t speak for them.”

I ask if he thinks culture and the arts have the ability to change politics. “I’m not a believer in art changing things, in that you’re just a part of the conversation, you’re not pushing it.”

Despite not intending create change his work has brought a new perspective on politics by addressing aspects usually left untouched by comedy or drama.

In his most recent work for television, Babylon, co-created by Armstrong, Bain, Danny Boyle and Robert Jones, he tackled the complexity of managing London's Metropolitan Police Force; from the bobby on the beat through to the Police Commissioner, by following the newly appointed Director of Communications, Liz Garvey, who is hired after her TED talk on the importance of transparency in PR leaves an impression on the Commissioner. The result is a constant battle between damage limitation, good intentions and trying to manage the myriad motivations that drive large organisations, with a no obvious victors.

Before venturing into comedy, Armstrong was a researcher for the Labour MP Doug Henderson. Despite not being a very good one political aide (his words), Armstrong used his experience as a way into comedy. In an article for the Guardian in 2005, Armstrong described his low point in politics as attending the 1996 labour party conference in Blackpool, where he skipped the opportunity to network with the rising political class for the the slot machines of the pier, all while in the constant fear of being spotted by Jack Straw.

This initial interest in government and Whitehall has underpinned most of his work. We spoke just after the last leaders' debate, before the results of the general election. I wondered what he made of it. “It looked terrible. How are people supposed to get involved in that?” Despite his satirical outlook, Armstrong finds an appreciation in political engagement, failed or otherwise, that reveals just as much about our aspirations as it does our misgivings.

Love, Sex And Other Foreign Policy Goals Is Available Now

Caroline is the section editor of Art & Design at Little Atoms. She has written for The Guardian, Vice and Dazed & Confused.

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